Meetings & Conferences

Panel Discussion: Ethics, Public Engagement, Biosecurity and more (BioSysBio 2009)

Panel is:
Caitlin Cockerton (Chair)
Julian Savulescu
Matthew Harvey
Piers Millet
Drew Endy

Each panelist starts by giving a 10 minute talk.

Drew Endy: An Engineer's Perspective on Synthetic Biology

He's interested in synbio because: work into sustainability, among other things. The basics of genetic engineering hasn't changed in 30+ years. However, synbio equates to a tools revolution. But, do we need to "manage" people who are trying to "hack" the genome in their garage? Could you actually file patents on what's in the biobricks registry? Yes, but expensive. Will there be a cultural synchronization or a continued disconnect in future between genetic engineering researcher and the anti-GMO sections?

Personal Comments: A drawing of Rama (I think) – great sci-fi link! Also, a slick slide presentation with very few words and lots and lots of pictures – I like it.

Matthew Harvey: Synthetic biology and public engagement

Matthew Harvey is the Senior Policy Adviser, Science Policy Centre, Royal Society, UK.

One aspect of public engagement (PE): we shouldn't force people to be engaged if they don't care. Many of the PEs for GM started out adversarial: people assumed that scientists were "automatically" for GM. Unlike GM, there aren't a series of products queueing up to be sold. However, the risk assessment part remains vital. The Woodrow Wilson Center did a tentative PE study about synbio. They found that even with a very low awareness of synbio, 2/3 of adults are willing to express an initial opinion regarding the tradoff between potential benefits and risks. People also had questions way beyond risks and benefits (who what when where how etc). Based on this, institutions have been trying to move the PE upstream, before products were available. This is pitched as social intelligence gathering, and may try to anticipate problems that don't exist yet (for good or ill).

Julian Savulescu: Two Concerns about Synthetic Biology

From the University of Oxford. Benefits are already well-covered, but he wants to raise 2 concerns: synbio poses risk of malevolent use; synbio might undermine the moral use of living things. These concerns can be understood as variants of a common concern about promoting future wrongdoing.

Wrt the first concern, Cello et al in 2002 wrote about the de novo synthesis of poliovirus. Rumpey et al in 2005 reconstructed the 1918 spanish influenza virus. For the second concern, people are worried that synbio will contribute to a feeling that life no longer has a "special status". For a more thorough look, see Cho, Magnus, Caplan and McGee (1999). But where, on the nebulous scale of "moral status" do the products of synbio belong?

A reformulation of the 2nd concern is that: synbio beings are assigned great moral status, which cause a sacrifice of the human/animal status for the sake of the synbios, which could lead to humans/animals being harmed.

Suppose we correctly assign a great moral status to sybios: human/animals could get permissibly harmed. Alternatively, we incorrectly assign this status: humans/animals get wrongly harmed.

Some arguments: scientific inquiriy is justified by the intrinsic value of the knowledge it produces, but this assumes that the value of knowledge trumps other moral values. The second is the gunmakers' defence: a scientist is not responsible for malevolent uses, but wrongs for which we are not responsible can still be relelvant to the ethical assessment of our conduct. Additionally, we can't predict the future, so any principle which requires us to do so is unworkable, but it may well be possible to identify predictors of malevolent use – we haven't even tried.

The two main concerns can be understood as variants of a moral general concern about bringing about wrongdoing. The most popular way of dissolving these concerns – scientific isolationism – fails.

Challenges for regulators: minimise the risk of malevolent use. For scientists: make better predictions about how research will be used. For philosophers: ascertain criteria for moral status, and determine how to weigh risk of future wrongdoing against benefits of pursuing research in synbio.

Personal Comment: I don't agree that an increase in moral status (if that's the way it goes) of synbios would necessarily lead to a drop in the status of humans/animals.

Piers Millet

Personal Comment: Piers generously dropped his talk so that the panel discussion could begin. That was very nice, and very timely, as there's only 15 minutes left and the discussion hadn't started yet! A real shame to miss it, especially since we tantalizingly saw his first slide, a gigantic UN symbol with the words "Biological Weapons Convention Implementation Support Unit" underneath. Made me feel like we were in a secret meeting or something. However, smart move. A tip of the hat to him.

General Discussion

Q: Are there any occasions when a political decision has been needed in terms of prioritization of types of science (including synbio) when upstream PE has been attempted? Matthew isn't aware of any such occasion. Of course, this conference and the community itself is an example of upstream discussions in general.

Q: Comment for Julian: applications in practice aren't always influenced by whether or not it was originally developed for military purposes. (Personal Comment: I believe the example provided was the laser.) Drew mentioned that of course you could spend loads of time thinking about military/non-military applications. It is also good to engage in taking action early, as things are still being figured out. One example is the creation of iGEM as a cooperative community contest, as opposed to creating something more aggressive such as a "bug wars" game. 🙂

Piers: There are at least two approaches to doing diy bio: one is people doing biology on their kitchen tables, and the other is a community model where you don't expect to have your lab in your house, but you could have a community lab in a central location that can meet regulations and where people can do things. The latter is quite interesting.

Q: is synbio the end of evolution? How does it fit? Drew: evolution is the most successful design framework for biology, but we don't know how to deploy it yet! Can't go forward with existing frameworks for things like patents – would overload the current system.

Overall Personal Comments: The twitter #biosysbio feed has been quite interesting for this section.

Please note that this post is merely my notes on the presentation. They are not guaranteed to be correct, and unless explicitly stated are not my opinions. They do not reflect the opinions of my employers. Any errors you can happily assume to be mine and no-one else's. I'm happy to correct any errors you may spot – just let me know!

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By Allyson Lister

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